I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and as a young kid I could count to 99. I was the only child in my preschool class who could count that high, and I owe it all to NASCAR. When I began watching the sport in the early 1990s I would rely on my dad to find the race on TV and we would sit and watch together. My collection of toy cars would come in handy when we would place the winner’s car atop the TV after each race for a day or so to honor them in our own Victory Lane of sorts.
|Mark Martin from my interview with him two weeks ago|
For some reason as a youngster I began rooting for Mark Martin, the guy driving the Valvoline No. 6 car. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. There’s no fantastic story behind it at all (at least that I can remember). I just pulled for the man from Batesville, Ark.
In 1996 my dad and I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where I finally got to see live NASCAR racing occur for the first time. From that point forward it seems my life has been an unstoppable race of sorts as I’ve grown up and become one of Cincinnati’s leading voices when it comes to NASCAR.
I’ve met so many people who share my passion for NASCAR racing. But the one person I always wanted to meet and always wanted to talk to was Mark Martin. He became my childhood hero of sorts, which was odd only because most boys my age adored baseball players of football stars. No one I knew adored a NASCAR driver.
So, I was a little different, but so too, was Mark Martin.
Last night he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, an honor he has referred to multiple times as “the crown jewel” of his career. He called it the ultimate victory lane when thanking fans, friends, family and all his supporters through his nearly four-decade career in the sport during his induction speech on Friday night in Charlotte.
|Martin in 2009 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway|
Role models aren’t always perfect, but they do teach you about life in winning and in losing. Mark Martin might as well have been NASCAR’s most loveable loser. He finished runner-up in the points race five times. He never won the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, despite coming within inches in 2007. He finished second in another of the sport’s most prestigious races, the Brickyard 400, twice, losing to Jeff Gordon in 1998 and Jimmie Johnson in 2009.
Through all those seeming disappointments though, Mark Martin remained humble and upbeat. When he got out of his car after finishing second in the Daytona 500 under a controversial finish Martin didn’t beat up NASCAR officials or complain. He thanked his crew for giving him a car that was fast enough to finish second.
Mark Martin taught me about losing with class, and how to carry yourself with honor. Mark Martin taught me that you don’t always have to win a championship to be remembered as one of the best. Mark Martin taught me that friends and relationships create the best trophy case of all, not wins and losses.
Look, my life hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t been hard either by any stretch of the imagination, but it is never easy. When I was growing up the sports teams I played on were awful for the most part. But the guys and girls I played soccer, baseball, basketball and volleyball with all played our hearts out because we had pride in our school or in our team. We wanted to win every time we played better opponents.
In that same vein, Mark Martin would compete with the biggest and the best, some times when he had no shot, and he gave it his all. Dale Earnhardt Jr. commented in Martin’s introduction video that while Martin was never flashy, he was fast.
He was usually fast on Saturdays when the NASCAR Busch Series (now Xfinity Series) would race. Mark would jump in that black No. 60 car, outlined in yellow trim and Winn Dixie logos, and torch the field. Growing up Winn Dixie didn’t exist in Cincinnati, but sister chain Thriftway did, and they sold Chek Cola, a minor sponsor on the No. 60 car.
I still have a can of Chek Cola with Mark Martin on the side. It sits in my NASCAR display which will soon rest in my new home’s basement with all my other NASCAR memorabilia. I have so many Mark Martin diecast cars and collectables from my years growing up. I own Mark Martin shirts, hats, a pair of shorts and even a Mark Martin cellphone case. I grew up wearing red, white and blue No. 6 hats, transitioned into being an adolescent boy wearing Viagra-sponsored shirts and hats before Mark Martin would down his career in the No. 6 at Roush Racing.
|Me in a Viagra shirt at Indy in 2003|
|A small look at my collection of Mark Martin "stuff"|
We now have a special Facebook group where we share links about Mark Martin and NASCAR racing. Some of the members of the group were able to score tickets to the induction dinner and ceremony last night. We tweet and Facebook message each other on birthdays and stay in touch when we can.
Mark Martin was more than a hero to me. He was a role model and hero to them too, and it’s been fun to remain in touch with some of the members of the message boards even after our favorite man stopped racing.
As Mark Martin began to step away from NASCAR racing folks would ask me how I would move on in the sport. Do I have a new favorite driver? Would I pick a new guy or a new team to begin rooting for?
|Martin from 2011 at Indy|
|Me chatting with Mark Martin|
Years ago I never thought I would ever get to talk to Mark Martin, but always envisioned what I would do if I ever did. I’ve spoken to him in interview contexts for a number of years now at Indianapolis and Kentucky Speedway, and each time I remind him that while I may be carrying a camera and interviewing him to tell his story, deep down inside I am first and foremost a lifelong Mark Martin fan, and always will be.
For all of you out there that feel the same way, I hope you can join me in thanking Mark Martin for representing us, and himself, with the utmost class. To see a man we have rooted for and cheered for make the ultimate step into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is a moment I won’t soon forget.
The race wins may fade. The fact that he never won a title will be quelled by this awesome achievement, and a man I considered a hero and a role model will finally be recognized as something other than “former NASCAR driver” when he gets introduced to crowds.
|Mark Martin and Dr. Jerry Punch at Kentucky in 2011|
It’s hard not to hold back emotions when you see something like we saw last night in Charlotte too, a fitting cap to a true hall of fame career.
Mark Martin said he never imagined seeing his name next to his heroes like Richard Petty—his childhood hero—in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Well, now, we can say we see the name of our hero, Mark Martin, in the NASCAR Hall of Famer forever.
Hero. Icon. Legend. Class-act. And Hall of Famer. Congratulations Mark Martin. You earned this distinction, and you deserve it.